The Important Role of Intonation in Speech

The Important Role of Intonation in Speech

Copyright (c) 2008 Lynda Stucky

If you have ever learned another language you know how difficult it is to master. There are different pronunciations of sounds, different grammar rules and some intonation or inflection changes that are complicated and difficult to remember in speech. Unless you are one of the lucky people who is very talented at learning other languages easily, you may find yourself applying the rules of your language to the new language you are trying to learn.

One of the most difficult tasks for foreigners to learn is the stress patterns and melody of English. Stress on words and in sentences can be inaccurate to the point of making the message completely unintelligible. When we were babies, we listened carefully to the speech patterns of the people in our environment. We began babbling by imitating the melody of speech we heard the adults around us use. Learning pitch patterns as a child is easier than learning new patterns as an adult. However, mastering intonation will greatly benefit the non-native speakers intelligibility in conversation.

Our inflection rises when we ask a question and falls when we make a statement. Intonation is the part of speech that creates emphasis, tone, variety and new meaning by making changes in pitch and loudness.

Here is an example sentence. Try to say it in a very staccato way by giving each syllable the same amount of time. Say it very flat in pitch and loudness.

"The issue was discussed."

Now, say the sentence and lengthen the vowel in the first syllable of "issue" (ISsue) and the second syllable in "discussed" (disCUSSED). Really exaggerate the length of those vowels. Also, get higher in pitch when you say them. You have just modified the melody of speech!

No matter what country a person comes from, there will be differences between languages. Here are some other examples that often create challenges to overcome for non-native English speakers.

1. Mandarin Chinese relies on tone differences to make different words. One word may have four different tones and each tone has four different meanings. In English that happens some but not as often. (Consider PROject and proJECT.)

2. Some languages have more pitch changes on individual vowels in words to indicate different word meanings.

3. In Japanese, some tone differences signify a change in the grammar of the sentence.

4. Some languages place equal stress on every syllable with limited variation in loudness or pitch so it is more of a monotonic language.

The task of learning the melody of American English comes easily to those of us who grew up speaking it. But for a non- native speaker, it takes time, practice and perseverance. In order to be better understood in the workplace, on the telephone or giving presentations, the melody of speech is a critical piece in order for the listener to understand the speakers message. It is even considered to be more important than pronunciation of sounds. Mastering this aspect of speech will greatly benefit the communication effectiveness between two speakers.


Modifying a foreign accent with the goal of becoming more understandable in another country takes a lot of hard work. If you need assistance mastering American English we can help. Contact us here.